Dan Blanchard says Juneau’s UnCruise Adventures is a bit like 7up, the colorless carbonated soft drink that branded itself the “uncola” years ago.
“We’re the antithesis of usual cruises,” he said. Many of their clients are people who experienced Europe for $5 a day in the 1960s, and want to return to that experience -- with modern day comforts.
“In the ‘80s and ‘90s people on cruise ships would go to the bow of the ship with a glass of cognac, look at the glacier and say, ‘that’s good enough.’ We want people to return to nature, touch it and feel it rather than just look at it. Baby Boomers actually want to go to the glaciers and the ice caves. They want to touch and feel them. But then they want to come back to a Tempur-Pedic mattress and great food when they return from the wild. That’s an uncruise.”
UnCruise Adventures was originally “North American Safari Cruises,” but Blanchard, Owner and CEO of UnCruise, said the company went through a re-branding in 2006 and 2007 because the word “safari” is usually associated with Africa, not Alaska.
The name “uncruise” was actually suggested by a passenger. Blanchard said the crew and passengers were debriefing at the end of one trip and someone said, “You’re like the uncruise.”
“So we did focus groups and people either loved the name or hated it. But they all remembered it,” he said. “Now the general public loves the name but I think the cruise ship industry hates it because they think it’s a knock on the big ships.”
It’s not meant as a knock at all. But “uncruise” is a distinction from other types of voyages. A typical uncruise begins when Blanchard meets passengers at the dock in Juneau as they board one of the seven ships owned by UnCruise. Passengers can choose from seven different itineraries, including visits to Glacier Bay National Park.
“Really what it is is that we’re more into adventure travel,” he said. “We’ll anchor up in a pristine cove near a glacier and we’ll go bush-whacking — there are not a lot of developed trails — where we go and we’ll use bear trails and other wildlife trails to get around. We’ll even go snorkeling."
“People that come with us can be sedate and enjoy the joys of the boat or they can choose an early riser breakfast and get on a kayak at 8 a.m. Grandparents bring their families along, and the teenagers are always blown away. It’s a pretty cool deal.”
Blanchard said “the $10,000 question” is what’s next for UnCruise. But he has a few ideas. Big ideas.
“We’re looking at expanding our current destinations,” he said. “We’d like to go to Prince William Sound, maybe expand our operations in Costa Rica and Panama, but with Alaska we’re always looking for refinement. We get so many people who return to Alaska and they always want more.”
Blanchard calls himself “an Alaska boy at heart” but he was born and raised in Washington State, spending much of his youth on a tugboat owned by his family. He became a captain when he was 18 and in 1996 he “walked my own plank” by starting his own business.
He had been importing boats from Taiwan in the 1980s when he noticed an index card on a job board saying there was an opening for a boat captain in Glacier Bay. Thus began his love affair with Alaska.
“It wasn’t a business decision to come to Alaska, it was a lifestyle decision,” he said. “I had grown up on the water in Washington, and I came up and was hooked on Alaska. It changed my life. I never want to leave Alaska again. I live right in downtown Juneau and love it. I’m looking out my window and I can see the tops of the mountains. It’s a perfect place to live.”
He especially loves the wildness of Alaska’s environment because it continues to thrive as development encroaches on wilderness in the Lower 48.
“Alaska is contrarian,” he said. “Instead of fewer salmon we have more salmon. Instead of fewer whales we have more whales. If you allow wild, wild nature to prosper it will always have its place. It will always thrive if you allow it to. Years ago it was a big deal when we saw our first sea otter in Glacier Bay. Now there are 10,000 in Glacier Bay. We’re kind of the last bastion of wilderness in the world. That really excites me.”
But the less rustic areas in Juneau are great as well, he said. There’s plenty to do if you’re getting off a ship and the weather isn’t cooperating.
“Typically cruise ship folks, not the folks on my boats, have only a day,” he said. “The tram in Juneau is a great thing to do.There are more miles of trails in Juneau than there are roads. You can take a helicopter trip or go dog sledding. There are Iditarod dogs that need to be trained and you can go sledding with them. When the weather’s not so great there are some good museums, and The Alaska State Museum is one of the nicest museums I’ve ever been in anywhere.”
“Or you can take a Taku Glacier lodge trip. You fly up over the Taku River and over the ice field to this ancient lodge and have a salmon lunch or dinner. You’re not buying salmon from a corporation. You’re buying from a family fisherman.”
Whatever your preferences for adventure, though, Blanchard can speak highly enough about Juneau and its environs.
“If you’re somebody who loves the outdoors you’ll have a field day,” he said. “I can’t think of a more perfect place.”